Why Is Japanese Web Design So Different? Like an internet time machine

    When I think of Japan I tend to think of beautiful design. Zen gardens, temples, shrines, tea ceremonies, manga, anime, wabi-sabi… the list goes on and on. Yet for some reason Japan just can't put any of this together to make a decent looking website. Where did they go wrong? What in the world happened? Time to find out.

    Japanese Websites

    Let's start out by looking at some bigger Japanese websites. These are just a few examples that will give you an idea about the "Japanese aesthetic" when it comes to web design.


    Design of the homepage of Rakuten's website

    Rakuten is a lot like the Amazon of Japan (with a bit of Ebay thrown in). Japanese websites love text, and this is no exception. While there's a few images here, the more you scroll down, the more text you end up seeing. You'd think that a shopping site would want to have more images to entice you, but the Japanese web aesthetic of textiness is strong with this one.


    Design of the homepage of NicoNicoDouga's website

    NicoNicoDouga is like the YouTube of Japan if YouTube wasn't already the YouTube of Japan. It's particularly known for the ability to add comments right onto the video screen. Once again, we see a ton of text. We'll delve into why this is in a little bit, but it must be important if you cover your video website with text instead of video, right?


    Design of the homepage of Gigazine's website

    Gigazine is a popular tech blog in Japan. It's full of strange color choices, missing padding, and advertisements. Though this site is fairly image heavy for a Japanese website, just keep in mind that it's catered towards the more tech-savvy, which is obviously why this is such a beautiful website. Speaking of which, how many ads can you spot?

    Japanese Website Aesthetic

    So what is the "Japanese Website Aesthetic?" There are quite a few patterns that show up again and again in Japanese web design, I think.

    • A lot of text, really packed in there
    • Smallish sized images
    • Columns, usually three of them.
    • Poor use of white space / padding
    • (often) blue URL coloring
    • CHAOS What does this sounds like… does it sound like American web design in the 90s / Yahoo's current design to you? It certainly feels that way to me. How did this come to be? Why is Japan, the world's leader in robotics, hybrid cars, and Gundam models, so far behind when it comes to the web? Where did they go wrong?

    Mobile Phones

    Japanese person using his phone to scan a QR Code

    Mobile phones have ruled in Japan for quite a while, though personal computers are definitely catching up. Back when Americans were getting heavy laptops and Gateway computers, the Japanese were texting up a storm on their futuristic cell phones. Because of this alternate tech history, a lot of Japanese websites were designed for flip phones and eventually this became part of the aesthetic. To make a website work well on phones like this, you need to do a few things:

    • Skinny columns (that just go on top of each other on a mobile device)
    • Textiness… lots and lots of textiness.
    • Smaller images (they load faster!)

    If you look at the example websites above, you'll see that they have all of these things. While a lot of bigger companies have the resources to create completely separate designs for mobile and computer, smaller companies can't do this. What's the solution? They just end up making a website that (sort of) works in both. That explains why so many websites kind of look like they're supposed be viewed on your phone… because they should viewed on your phone!

    Slow Personal Computer Adoption

    Nowadays individual computer use is really picking up in Japan. Ten or fifteen years ago, not so much. As I mentioned before, it was cell phones that won this war of Internet dominance. Now though, more and more people are starting to use personal computers. Although the current aesthetic has been built up around mobile phone use, I expect to see a shift as more and more people hop on computers. I don't think Japan will catch up right away (it's kind of like how developing nations are supposed to go through their industrial revolution, or something), though I do hope it moves pretty fast. I do not enjoy navigating you, Japanese web. You hurt my eyes.

    Internet Explorer 6

    The trollface meme designed as the Internet Explorer logo

    When it comes to Internet Explorer 6 usage, Japan actually rolls in at third for the entire world. Only China (23.8%) and Korea (6.3%) out-muscle Japan (6.1%) in this out-of-date-browser-war. When you have this many people using such a terrible browser, you have to design with it in mind. IE6 limits what you can do design-wise, which means you have to make a choice: Do I make my website look not as good as it could be? Or, do I ignore this 6.1% of people and design how I want?

    This isn't even when you take into account IE7, which is better, but still not all that great to work with. Until people upgrade to better and more modern browsers, better design will remain more difficult. Not impossible, but this certainly doesn't make things any easier. How do you get around this? Flashhhhh.


    Remember when America was all into Flash? I feel like Japan's been going through that lately, which seems right on target because they've always been about 10 years behind in the game that is web design. If you design in Flash, you don't have to worry so much about IE6. That being said, the most popular phone in Japan (iPhone) doesn't work with Flash. Right now Japanese web design is a little too buddy-buddy with flash in my opinion. It makes for poor user experience, generally, which goes right along with all the other problems that Japanese web design has. Hopefully we'll see them kick this "fad" to the side of the road here pretty soon, especially with touchscreen mobile getting so important.

    It's Not All Bad, Though

    All that being said, there's a lot of great web design coming from Japan as well. To round out this article, I thought I'd share some examples of beautiful web design. Click on the images to see the actual site in action.

    Design of the homepage of Uniqlo's website


    Design of the homepage of Ishiyama Senkoh's website

    Ishiyama Senkoh

    Design of the homepage of Toyota Municipal Museum website

    Toyota Municipal Museum Of Art

    Design of the homepage of Hanamichiya's website


    Design of the homepage of Swiss' website


    Design of the homepage of Taromagazine's website


    Design of the homepage of Takeo Paper Show's website

    Takeo Paper Show

    While a lot of these websites are a lot better looking (in my opinion) than the examples shown at the top of this article, though some of them are done in Flash (ick). I suppose if you're looking to design with IE6 in mind, Flash is a good way to get around that?

    Whatever happens, though, I'm really looking forward to the evolution of Japanese web design. With everything except web design, Japan has such an interesting aesthetic. If it could be applied to Japanese web design, well, I think we'll end up seeing some really innovative stuff.

    So, here's to hoping they don't actually follow in our footsteps. If they can avoid the phase where everything's a ridiculous gradient… well… I'll be happy. Wabi-sabi it up, please.